predators prowl the deeps
Reading Time: 8 minutes (Chris Bayer.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, I showed you the latest scandal hitting evangelicals. In this one, it turns out that J.D. Greear hired Bryan Loritts to work in his megachurch. Greear hired him knowing that his new sub-pastor had previously shielded a sex abuser: his creepy brother-in-law Rick Trotter. Now that the truth’s come out, Greear’s eating some crow over it. He’s trying to act like gosh, y’all, he jus’ didn’ REEEEEALIZE that this might be seen as baaaaaad! And his disavowal makes perfect sense. J.D. Greear and Bryan Loritts hold leadership roles in a completely broken system. That means they operate according the principles of power. Today, let me show you how the principles of power led J.D. Greear and Bryan Loritts straight into their current public-relations nightmare.

predators prowl the deeps
(Chris Bayer.)

Rick Trotter: Timeline.

First, let me present a the timeline of the whole scandal. (Hat tips: Wartburg Watch and Wondering Eagle.)

2003: Bryan Loritts co-founds Fellowship Memphis. Until 2015, he’ll be their pastor.

2005: Bryan Loritts hires Rick Trotter to be his church’s Worship Director. At some point, Trotter becomes his brother-in-law. (Soon after the hiring, the Memphis Grizzlies make him their announcer.)

2010: Rick Trotter gets caught filming women in the church’s bathroom. After being reported, he confesses. Afterward, Fellowship Memphis fires him.

2011: Downtown Church hires Rick Trotter as a part-time staffer. They hire him knowing about his past. They set up an “accountability plan” for him. He apparently conforms to it. (Who’s shocked?)

2014: Downtown Church makes Rick Trotter’s employment full-time. The church’s congregation approves this move after learning about his past.

2015: Bryan Loritts heads to New York City, where he pastors Trinity Grace Church. I strongly suspect they hired him without knowing about his past. A year later, he’s gone.

January-ish 2016: Bryan Loritts becomes a pastor at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in California.

August-ish 2016: Someone catches Rick Trotter taking more upskirt photos of women in his church. Downtown Church turns him over to the police. It’s the first time anyone has done that. Quickly, Trotter confesses to making similar images of women in numerous places. (Full confession.) A number of Trotter’s victims feel the local police shielded Trotter.

2019: J.D. Greear puts on a big song-and-dance about how saaaaaad he is about the SBC’s huge number of sex-abuse scandals. It works, generally.

2020: J.D. Greear hires Bryan Loritts to be a sub-pastor for his megachurch, Summit Church. He does so knowing about Loritts’ past shielding. Abuse advocates raise an uproar. In response, Greear “investigates.” And then, he hires Loritts anyway.

January 2021: The uproar hasn’t died down. In response, J.D. Greear hires Guidepost LLC. They’ll investigate Bryan Loritts’ actions and decisions in 2010.

Principles of Power: The Gravitational Center.

A broken system is simply one that cannot fulfill its own stated goals — and isn’t really even trying to do so. Its leaders have their own covert, unstated agendas, which they fulfill at the complete expense of their followers. Such groups might last for centuries and seem extremely profitable, but their social system is completely dysfunctional.

When a group’s social system is broken, personal power becomes the group’s real currency — and most members’ ultimate goal. Every person in a broken system jockeys for as much power as they can scrabble together. And they want power because that’s the only way to ensure their own safety and comfort.

At some point, most members realize that power is the goal. They get in line to grab for it. Anyone who doesn’t make that realization or wish to join the game becomes fodder for someone else’s ambitions.

Power — the ability to command and control others (especially the unwilling), to get one’s way, to bat away all threats and challenges — forms the very gravitational center of broken systems.

(It ain’t Jesus. As if I needed to say that.)

The Worldview of Authoritarians.

When we try to tell people in broken systems that not all groups operate like that, that it’s possible for an egalitarian group to behave in ways congruent with their stated goals, they think we’re infants — compared to them. They know, or so they think, what we do not: “Everyone is enslaved to something to [sic] someone, whether we know it or not.”

How lucky we all are that they are here to tell us this cosmic truth that we do not yet realize! (/s)

So yes, people in broken systems really think that’s how the entire world works: it follows the lines of power, and only those fluent in the language of power can possibly hope to avoid gruesome fates in this world and the next. They have no idea how to engage with the very idea of a group operating under any different lines.

That is why broken systems always distribute power in the same exact ways. People in leadership in these groups get huge amounts of power, while those following get none. The only way to survive (emotionally, financially, professionally) in these groups is to claw together a lot of personal power in one’s social milieu — and to be alert, always, for promotion opportunities and potential threats to one’s current power-base.

Broken systems skew authoritarian for a lot of reasons, but their ultimate loyalty to personal power might be the main one.

As we move on today, remember that the people inhabiting broken systems think all groups operate this way, and thus that anyone who thinks otherwise is a foolish child who hasn’t cracked the nut of truth yet.

Principles of Power: Leaders Protect Themselves FIRST.

In broken systems, there’s no real way for power to end up in the hands of those best qualified to wield it. Power flows from those-in-most-power to those-with-less-power. That part’s true of most groups. Unfortunately, in broken systems the people who grant power don’t possess any adequate means of determining who is qualified to get power from them.

Instead, the powerful people in broken systems hand power to anybody who can trick the kingmakers into trusting them. Genuinely good people who want to achieve leadership positions in broken systems can’t be nearly so convincing. They can’t play the game well enough for long enough to get to the big leagues. They’re not willing to perform piety well enough to impress the performatively-pious leaders who are already in place. And they’re decidedly unwilling to abase themselves enough to gain the trust of their group’s power-brokers.

So any more compassionate would-be leaders in broken systems can only watch as predator after predator enters their groups after them, only to outpace them to the top of their group’s ladder.

(It goes without saying that evangelicals’ god not only doesn’t stop predators from finding power in authoritarian churches, but he also refuses to direct these churches’ kingmakers toward better candidates for promotion. Gosh, it’s so weird…)

Over time, these same leaders strip from their groups any ability to remove a bad actor from leadership. They do this out of self-interest. Leaders tend to have a lot of skeletons in their closets because any goodness they display is performative. They protect their fellow leaders from any fallout from their misbehavior and crimes, and in turn they expect similar protection for their own.

The real marvel is that we don’t see more scandals out of these groups, when it gets down to it. Their dynamics guarantee nothing else.

Rick Trotter, Bryan Loritts, and the Principles of Power.

Now then. Let’s dive into how Rick Trotter and Bryan Loritts fit into the principles of power.

Bryan Loritts founded and led a relatively small church in 2003. In 2005, he hired Rick Trotter to lead one of the growing church’s ministries. And for five years, Trotter worked in that capacity under Loritts.

When a church leader in a broken system does something reprehensible, his fellow powerful leaders will shield him.

Every time. Without fail. Of course.

Powerful leaders shield wrongdoers especially when they’re the ones who handed those wrongdoers the power to victimize other people in the first place. Scandals reveal just how broken their hiring process is! Their hiring decisions were not, in fact, done at the direction of Jesus — and in fact may reflect very poor judgment and discernment on the part of the hiring parties.

If they’re not the ones who hired the wrongdoers in the first place, leaders will still shield the wrongdoers. At that point, they’re protecting their group’s entire leadership. If the group allows wrongdoers into power, that calls into question the leadership’s credibility and reputation (their “witness,” to use the Christianese).

Absolutely everything in authoritarian flavors of Christianity favors the powerful — and protects them at all costs from the consequences of their own actions.

The Shell Game Played With Christian Predators.

So when Bryan Loritts learned what Rick Trotter had done in 2010, his immediate impulse was to protect Trotter from consequences. He did not disbar Trotter from holding leadership positions in other churches, only his own. He did not try to stop other churches from hiring a known sex abuser.

The next church that hired Trotter thought they could force him into shape. They laid an “accountability” program on him that was supposed to show he was trustworthy again. But oh, it is easy for predators to fool people. It’s even easier when those other people are trained from birth to believe, falsely, that predators can be reformed. Trotter fooled them, and so they hired him on full-time a few years later.

Then, they were SHOCKED I SAY SHOCKED when, just a couple years later, Trotter did the same exact thing to more women.

Meanwhile, Bryan Loritts was, I suspect at least, discovering that his shielding of Rick Trotter had become an inconsistent albatross hung ’round his neck. Some churches cared; some didn’t. Overall, though, he survived. There’s plenty of authoritarian Christian churches out there who don’t feel that shielding a sex abuser is a dealbreaker for employment. Or adoration.

Why, one of the top leaders of one of those exact churches even held the presidency of Loritts’ entire denomination! J.D. Greear was perfectly happy to hire Loritts in 2020, even knowing exactly what he’d done in 2010. And if things hadn’t gone completely pear-shaped, Loritts would now likely be in the clear, his albatross lifted from him at last.

How Authoritarian Groups Handle Scandals. (They Don’t.)

Authoritarian power structures are notoriously hard to shift and change once they become entrenched in a group. The bad actors of authoritarian leadership can easily break even the most virtuous intents of the most virtuous groups out there. But evangelicals have never been really virtuous. They’ve always been about power.

And double that fact for Southern Baptists. They only became a formal denomination in the first place to protect their desire to enslave and dehumanize other human beings. Perhaps that’s why they talk so much about everyone being “a slave to something.” (This error is called an equivocation, as well as an attempt at moral leveling.) Either way, their main interest has always been protecting their privilege. Thus, everyone’s a slave, but Caucasians are just less slave-ish than those of other races, I guess, and men are always way less slave-ish than women.

However, many Southern Baptists want to at least pretend to be a bit better than that. They don’t really want to see a lot of changes (almost none of them do, I suspect). They just want to goose their bad actors into behaving more nicely with the unilateral, absolute power they’re given over others. As for the ones who don’t even want to pretend to want reform, well, they know nothing will really change so they’re able to get through the posturing with their affiliation intact.

So J.D. Greear knows that he only needs to make some requisite mouth-noises to soothe his flocks. That’s all anybody has to do. Usually, they weather calls for change in that way. And usually, it works.

Why Nothing Will Change After Bryan Loritts’ Case is Resolved.

His hypocrisy just didn’t fly this time. People raised an uproar and more importantly, maintained the pressure on J.D. Greear. Otherwise, Greear was not going to follow the rules he himself wanted to set for the SBC. And nobody could hold him accountable for his hypocrisy, thanks to the broken system that undergirds the SBC.

J.D. Greear’s leadership decisions in 2020 do not conform at all to his stated goals from 2019. Without someone having the power to force even top leaders to behave in ways that are congruent with the group’s stated goals, they will not.

However, the SBC has traditionally resisted all such reforms. And they will continue to do so. Real reform means they won’t have unilateral, absolute power anymore. No authoritarian leader holding that kind of power will ever willingly give it up.

Anybody who expects the Bryan Loritts scandal to change anything will be very disappointed. But I don’t know who would expect that, except maybe the few Christians involved in the SBC who haven’t figured out yet that it’s a broken system whose leaders are focused only on growing and defending their power.

Hey, every shark handler knows that sharks need food.

NEXT UP: A quick Christianese lesson in the ways evangelical pastors use borrowed authority. Captain Cassidy’s Christianese 101 class assembles to the left!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...